Needs & Wants

I am enjoying reading The Big Questions by Lou Marinoff, especially as it does its job in triggering insights and responses in me – the reader.

For instance, in the section on suffering he discusses the difference between needs and wants.

Conventional View: Needs & Wants
Needs are presented as basic physical survival needs (food, shelter, etc) and wants as that which is beyond our real needs – as “extra”. Needs can and should be satisfied. Wants can never be completely satisfied – there is always more to want and pursuing them is a path to suffering. This is a common differentiation, although one that is maybe not all that precise.

Alternative View: They are all needs
Another way of looking at it, is to see all our activities as attempts to meet real needs.

We have a wide range of needs, from the basic physical ones such as food and shelter, to nontangible needs such as need for connection, sense of meaning, etc. And we apply certain strategies to attempt to meet these needs.

Physical Needs
For the basic physical needs, our strategies are usually relatively effective (provided the external circumstances are favorable) and easy to recognize as what they are – strategies to meet basic physical needs.

Non-tangible Needs
For our non-tangible needs, there is sometimes less of a clear connection between our needs and the strategies we employ. We may not be consciously aware of our needs. We may not explore the connection between the need and the strategy we choose, and how appropriate and effective the strategy is likely to be. And we may apply certain strategies mindlessly, from habitual patterns learned from culture, subculture and personal experiences.

For instance, if we have a need for connection (intimacy, relationship etc), we may apply a strategy of eating food, or engage in consumerism such as buying clothes, gadgets, etc. This will not be satisfying, at least not for any longer than the distraction of the “hunt” lasts, so we will engage in the same or another habitual strategy again. It is a continuous loop, until the real need is recognized and satisfied.

From this perspective, the physical needs are what Marinoff see as needs. The non-tangible needs (no less real), which we often attempt to meet through a confused choice of strategies, are what he refers to as wants.

If this is indeed closer to what is going on, then trying to eliminate wants is futile, as they tap into real needs – which will always be there until they are satisfied.

Inner & Outer Sources to Nourish Nontangible Needs
When we recognize these needs, we can consciously apply a strategy that is more likely to satisfy them. For most needs, there is a wide range of possible strategies. For instance, we can find outside or an inside source of approval, intimacy, sense of connection, etc.

Seeking an outside source only tends to lead to continuing suffering (loss, fear of loss, hope, hope of gain). Taking care of the inner source gives more stability and sense of nourishment – we carry it with us wherever we are. This allows us to connect deeper with outer sources, and with less blind attachment. Even when the outer source is no longer around, there is still the inner.

The Outer Awakens the Inner
Of course, there is always only the inner. The outer is only there to remind us about it, to help us awaken it. If we don’t recognize the inner source, we will loose connection with it when the outer source is no longer there. When we recognize and nurture the inner source, it will always be there – independent of the comings and goings of the outer sources. A loss of an outer source may still be painful, but not devastating.

Recognizing these patterns opens for a deep appreciation of and gratitude for those in our lives who remind us and help us connect with our inner source. Some of them may not even know us, others may be in our lives intimately.

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